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BACK TO BASICS: Gov. Shumlin Makes Power Grab to Control Public Schools

Ohanian Comment: Continuing my campaign to get an op ed in as many venues as possible, but to make it specific to the audience intended, I e-mailed David Berliner, asking him to refresh my memory about the remarks he made about dangers of making policy by exceptionalism. He responded immediately and I call his response the Jack Daniels Policy.

by Susan Ohanian

Given the origins of the historic Vermont Design for Education, a 1968 Vermont State Department of Education document guiding education that resulted from policy makers in Montpelier asking local communities what they want for and from their schools, it is more than ironic that these days politicos traveling under the banner of 'progressive' are determined to wrest the last crumb of public school policy and practice away from us locals.

The Vermont Design for Education focuses on the needs of individual learners and states explicitly in Tenet 5 that "Education should strive to maintain the individuality and originality of the learners" declaring that "The school's function is to expand the differences between individuals and create a respect for those differences."

It's no surprise that the Vermont Design for Education was erased from the Department of Education website years ago. Worse, Governor Peter Shumlin seems intent on instituting a Jack Daniels education policy, that is, education policy based on his own exceptionalism. In January at a Montpelier event titled Rolling Out the Vermont Blueprint to Close the Achievement Gap, he spoke of his own dyslexia, pronouncing that if he could succeed in school, anybody can.

There, Shumlin was front man for the evangelical science hawked by the keynote speaker, discredited Reading First architect Reid Lyon.

Elsewhere, educators thought Reid Lyon had been buried by the disaster of the U. S. Inspector General's report on the Reading First program mandated by No Child Left Behind and by the negative report issued by the U. S. Department of Education's own research arm. This research found that "The $1 billion-a-year Reading First program as had no measurable effect on students' reading comprehension. . . ."

But never mind, a press release tagged the Roll Out event as "a seminal initiative developed to help Vermont's struggling readers," and after proclaiming that Vermont teachers don't know how to teach reading, Reid Lyon announced that "all poor kids" should get the reading method specified in his 32-page Power Point presentation.

Two months later, in March, Governor Shumlin again offered a mandate for education. Following up a news conference where he advocated making Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra II requirements for a high school diploma, he made the same pitch at a meeting of the State Board of Education. Shumlin spoke movingly of his own struggles with higher math, insisting, "If I could do it, anybody can."

As Prof. Steven Gross observed, this math requirement was the education solution proffered by the famous Committee of Ten report--in 1892.

Never mind that the prestigious Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce reports that less than 5% of Vermont jobs in 2018 will require this level of math training. The Kellogg project tells us that the skills we need for the twenty-first century include those found in the arts and social sciences, those that foster creativity, community, responsibility, team-work, and flexibility.

Like many politicians, Shumlin refers to anecdotes from business executives who say they have jobs that go unfilled because of the lack of qualified people. Such anecdotes have reached mythic levels. But, as the eminent MIT labor economist Frank Levy notes, the real shortage is in non-technical skills. There are three math and science qualified candidates for every job provided by U. S. businesses. While whining about training, our corporations are off-shoring jobs where engineers are bought for pennies on the dollar.

Thus, the Governor and Commissioner Vilaseca are pushing for an antiquated math plan that does not solve our jobs problem, alienates a substantial portion of our youth, generates a surplus of unhappy, unemployed youth with college debt, and dictates what our local schools should teach all children in every grade.

Governor Shumlin's account of his own education journey is truly inspiring, but universalizing a personal experience into education policy by exceptionalism is not only foolish, it is dangerous, throwing a sizeable number of our students off a cliff.

Our governor talks to other governors and to IBM executives. I recommend that he have a conversation with award-winning researcher David Berliner, co-author of the famous Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools.

Addressing participants at the New DEEL Conference at Temple University in 2010, Berliner noted that "Somewhere within a mile of this auditorium is a 90-year-old man who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day and probably, as well, another 90-year-old who drinks half a bottle of Jack Daniels every day. These exceptions exist. But you do not want to use them to make health policy. You want to make policy based on the most likely outcomes you can expect."

Berliner pointed out that likewise, in education, it's quite wonderful when someone manages to pull himself up by his bootstraps, but "that's not an excuse for abandoning policies that might help poor kids do better in this world."

For the sake of our children and our own future, we must not implement a Jack Daniels education policy. Let's put politics and exceptionalism on a back burner. The governor has very strong, idiosyncratic education views based on his own exceptional history. These views, however well-intentioned as they may be, need the leavening effect of a diverse state board of education whose members bring experiences and knowledge from every corner of the state. Not only should we refuse Gov Shumlin's call; we must reclaim our schools--ake them back so they address the needs of children. The place to start is with local boards of education.

Today's educational crisis is not the failure of our local schools; it is twenty years of scrambling to cope with inept federal and state meddling.

— Susan Ohanian
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